Why isn’t religion Dionysian?

Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632). Oil on canvas, 98 x 142 cm.

Here’s a thought for today: Is it a coincidence that all the major Western religions are anti-sex?

Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism all equate sex with sin. They set elaborate rules that control, restrict and shape sexual impulses. They demand monogamy without exception and condemn sex outside marriage. They crusade against LGBTQ rights, divorce, masturbation, polyamory, pornography, and any other kind of sex that doesn’t fit this paradigm.

They’re deeply ambivalent about the body, as in the Garden of Eden story where shame about nakedness is the first symptom of sin entering the world, or the Old Testament codes which decree that wet dreams, menstruation and birth make people ritually unclean, or the New Testament verses where Jesus recommends castration. Many of them, especially the Roman Catholic church, assert that sex should always be for procreation and never for pleasure alone.

And because these religions all label women as the sex class, they treat them as especially liable to sin and to tempt others into sin, and burden them with heavy rules and obligations that don’t apply to men. Conservative Judaism, for example, teaches that women must remain segregated and silent during religious services, lest they distract men from holiness. The Christian patriarchy movement treats women as property to be handed off from father to husband, and holds that they have a duty to act and dress modestly so there’s no chance of causing men to feel lust. Conservative branches of Islam force women to be veiled and virtually invisible in public.

It’s not just that these religions have so many rules about sex. It’s the extreme emphasis they put on enforcing these rules, both by policing their own members and by trying to write them into secular law where possible. Judging by the behavior of Christians, Christianity cares far more about sexual behavior and sexuality than it does about any other cause, like feeding the hungry or ending war.

This is especially strange because the religious obsession with controlling sexuality is, arguably, their biggest weakness. It means that rebellion will always be pleasurable and tempting. They’re battling against human nature, rather than working in tandem with it.

The churches’ relentless opposition to LGBTQ rights has severely damaged their moral standing. They’re bleeding young people all around the world because of it. The same goes for feminism. Because the burden of anti-sex rules falls mostly on women, religion will always be public enemy number one for women who assert their rights as equal human beings with autonomy.

I can imagine a world where religion was different. This could be a world of Dionysian orgies and sex as a sacred act, as some pagan faiths may have believed.

But even without that, I can imagine a world where sex wasn’t the chief preoccupation of religious moralizers. It would be a world where the churches never developed sex-negative, body-shaming attitudes, rigid ideas about gender, or relentless hate for LGBTQ people. These alternate religions could still recommend fidelity and honesty and treating your partners well, but otherwise they wouldn’t be overly concerned about what people do with their bodies.

So why do we live in our world and not that one? Is it just random chance, a stroke of bad luck? Or is there a reason why patriarchal, sex-negative, prohibitionist churches won out over free-love paganism?

If you were inclined to evolutionary psychology, you might argue that monogamy is natural for humanity, and religious rules just reflect this innate preference. However, this theory has a harder time explaining why so many religions have such a negative attitude, bordering on revulsion, toward the body – both our own and others’. Surely we didn’t evolve to feel disgust at our own bodies.

Conservative religions teach people to feel shame and guilt over natural bodily functions; they frown on sexual pleasure; they try to keep people ignorant of the basic mechanics of sex for as long as possible. None of those make sense if you assume that promoting monogamous childbearing is the true goal. Some religions, especially Roman Catholicism, go further by requiring celibacy for their priests and exalting virginity for women. That’s literally the most “unnatural” belief possible, from an evolutionary standpoint. This is a strong signal that these rules are cultural, not genetic.

If we reject the null hypothesis that sex taboos arose because of chance, the best explanation I can come up with has to do with reinforcing hierarchy.

Most of the anti-sex religions are highly hierarchical, and that probably isn’t coincidence. Sex guilt is a useful tool for controlling worshippers. Teaching people to hate their bodies and feel shame for their natural impulses can become a focal point for rebellion, but for those who remain loyal, it ensures they’re always fighting against themselves.

It makes these religions feel more needed, in the sense that believers see life as a constant struggle against temptation. It means they can’t put confidence in their own judgment, but have to look to external authorities for validation and forgiveness. And it’s possible that, in war and conquest, hierarchical religions have an advantage. It’s easier for them to weld their followers together into an obedient army.

If this is true, it yields a prediction: the more egalitarian forms of these religions will also be less prudish. That’s not just because religions that are more liberal in general are also more liberal about sex. It’s because, without a steep hierarchy and the emphasis on obedience to dogma, they have less need to control their membership.


  1. garnetstar says

    Monogamy certainly isn’t natural for humans, or genetically controlled. The catholic church had a really long struggle to bring that in (one man/one woman marriage), and only succeeded in the early Middle Ages. And, didn’t some religions before the greek gods have more Dionysian attitudes toward sex? The temple holy prostitutes and all that?

    Maybe it was the current early churches struggling to control women as much as possible. Sounds reasonable!

  2. JM says

    It isn’t a coincidence but it probably has nothing really to do with religion itself. It is because Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism are all deeply interrelated religions. Judaism incorporated the tribal patriarchy and Christianity added Paul’s misogyny and anti-sex beliefs, the other two inherited everything from that*. Christianity and Islam have both been spread widely for political reasons that have nothing to do with the religion. Christianity, Islam and Mormonism all enshrine spreading the religion as a religious principle. Western religious thought is entirely dominated by a single trunk, everything else having been replaced or suppressed. Some things in that trunk are inherent to religion, some are inherent to that trunk and some are just there by accident.
    Compare this with the eastern religion environment. More entirely unrelated religions exist. None of the popular ones are Dionysian but neither are they as obsessed with sex. The anti-sex ones are anti worldly things in general, not singling out sex. As to your point about hierarchies, Confucianism is all about hierarchy and quite patriarchal without being particularly anti-sex.

    * The relation between Christianity and Islam is a lot more complex but that suffices for a one sentence description.

    • says

      While it’s true there’s a family relationship among all these faiths, I’ll offer a counterexample: food. Judaism has lots of rules and taboos about what you can and can’t eat. Christianity mostly discarded them. Then Islam added them back.

      Is it a coincidence that the authors of these various faiths felt free to tinker with the rules around food, but kept basically all the sex ones?

      • JM says

        All of the branches have sex related rules but they are distinctly different also and have changed over time. Christianity moved from harems to monogamy, Islam went back to harems and Mormonism has bounced around. Christianity had pushed the idea that celibacy is superior and marriage/sex is a second choice but mostly gave up on that quickly. Mormonism is caught between what the religious leaders want to do and what is politically practical.
        These rules change over time without the stated rules in the holy book changing. All of these religions condemn adultery but in practice depending on where, when and who all of the branches have wandered from “just don’t brag about it too much” to “you might even get executed”.
        The branches of Christianity have this habit of bringing the cultural norms into the religions rules and then claiming it was the church spreading those rules that created them. This makes it very hard to tell which things came from religion and which things got included in religion.
        Just to be clear, I think your point about sex, hierarchy and churches controlling people is true up to a point. Looking at small cults and how they control members much more directly then large ones makes it pretty clear there is some element of that. It’s also very hard to tell how much because there is also obvious elements of the church leaders projecting their hangups onto members, the church enforcing cultural rules under the name of religion and the church enforcing religious rules for a variety of other reasons.

  3. Katydid says

    Curse you, you made me think about the Duggars and others like them (extreme fundagelicals). They belong to a fertility cult with the constantly-breeding pair and their children forbidden from thinking about sex. Remember, this is the cult where toddler girls are put in dresses are shamed for tempting their brothers if they run and play like toddlers. Sexual control is near-total control because that’s all their flock think about. All that emphasis on sex has to potential to go bad–Josh Duggar was shamed and punished for masturbating, but was allowed to molest his sisters and various young girls sent to live in the Duggar home as “babysitters” (aka learning to be breeding automatons just like Michelle Duggar). He’s now behind bars for repeatedly violating laws against having videos of violent child sexual abuse on his work computer.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    To advocate a little deviltry: imagine you live in a society without any contraception, where individualism takes a very low position relative to the extended family, and families accumulate wealth and standing primarily through inheritance, yet adolescent sexuality blooms as strongly as ever even in the absence of any knowledge of hormones.

    So just how would you form and enforce regulation of behavior that threatens to undermine socioeconomic stability in each and every generation?

  5. jenorafeuer says

    I posted a comment over on PZ’s side before seeing this, but it’s rather appropriate here, too:

    It’s long been a joke that certain religious groups are often defined by ‘the eternal fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun’. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate, in most instances aside from the first (where a cult leader set it up as a control method), to say ‘the eternal jealousy that someone, somewhere, is having fun that I wasn’t allowed to have‘. “My father beat me if I so much as spoke up in his presence, so I’m not letting you get away with anything I couldn’t do!”

    Yeah, my take on the relationship between Islam and Christianity is more like ‘Islam split off from Judaism, acknowledged that Christianity existed and that Christ was a prophet, and tried (but ultimately failed) to stop the repeat of what they saw as Christianity’s mistake of deifying the founder as a messianic figure.’ (My understanding is that the prohibition on images of Mohammad was part general ‘no graven images’ and part attempt to prevent direct worship of him; sadly, said prohibition has instead been used as a weapon by treating him as a near-divine special case.)

  6. Callinectes says

    “The religious obsession with controlling sexuality is, arguably, their biggest weakness.”

    This is incorrect. By banning something that most people will inevitably do, or want to do, they ensure a steady supply of shame and guilt, and then offer the means to soothe it. If people can’t break away fully it ensures that they keep coming back.

  7. Katydid says

    Just something I’m wondering about: Isn’t Mormonism the Scientology of the early 1800s? Started by a con man with obviously made-up-on-the-spot theology and easily-disproven claims (for example, that Native Americans belong to the “lost tribe” of Israel when genetically it’s obvious that just isn’t so). It’s founders liked an endless supply of very-young women; therefore polygamy.

  8. jenorafeuer says

    You are far from the first to make the ‘Mormonism was the Scientology of the early 1800s’ comparison.

  9. garnetstar says

    Pierce B. @5, you could regulate society the same way that the English ended up with: the eldest son gets everything. All land, castles, money, etc. In your posited society I presume there’s no marriage, to separate the bastards from the true-born? So, any firstborn son of the current heir is, upon his birth, the next heir. The rest of the illegitimate children of the family get nothing.

    In England, parents could give a sum of money to their daughters on their marriage, but younger sons usually got nothing at all. Unmarried daughters were in real trouble, no money from their parents and no jobs that women of that class could get. But, in a society that really valued extended family, the eldest son could, upon inheritance, be required to *minimally* support (as, food and modest shelter) the other children born to him and his sibilings, his maiden aunts, and his unmarried sisters. Younger brothers were supposed to get out their and work.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    garnetstar @ # 9: In your posited society I presume there’s no marriage, to separate the bastards from the true-born?

    No, my posited society is most of the pre-industrial world, particularly Europe.

    As you note, primogeniture has lots of problems too – and does little/nothing to address the issues of “illegitimacy”.

    Only an individualistic society, with reliable solutions for unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections, can sustain a Dionysian culture for long. Our ancestors found even the fantasy too destabilizing to allow.

  11. John Morales says

    Some religions, especially Roman Catholicism, go further by requiring celibacy for their priests and exalting virginity for women.

    But then, they don’t require celibacy for the laity and definitely discourage virginity for married women.
    Married people can fuck like bunnies and it’s all good.

    (Basis for it being that sexual congress is a Sacrament in that religion)

    • Silentbob says

      @ 12 Morales

      (Basis for it being that sexual congress is a Sacrament in that religion)

      Lol. X-D
      Basis for it being to increase the population and therefore dominance of Catholics. Hence prohibitions against contraception, abortion.

    • MissCherryPi says

      Marriage is the sacrament. Sex is not a sacrament.

      Josephite (celibate) marriage is allowed.

      So even if you’re a married Catholic you still have Mary and Joseph (and anyone else attempting a celibate marriage on purpose) as an example of someone being more holy about sex than you.

      • John Morales says

        MissCherryPi, technically. But:

        Catechism of the Catholic Church


        III. The Love of Husband and Wife

        2360 Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament.

        [A bit further on]

        The fecundity of marriage

        2366 Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which “is on the side of life” teaches that “each and every marriage act must remain open ‘per se’ to the transmission of life.” “This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”

        2367 Called to give life, spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God.153 “Married couples should regard it as their proper mission to transmit human life and to educate their children; they should realize that they are thereby cooperating with the love of God the Creator and are, in a certain sense, its interpreters. They will fulfill this duty with a sense of human and Christian responsibility.”154

  12. Katydid says

    @9, jenorafeuer, interesting. I live in an area with a lot of Mormons and they’ve told me (usually against my will, but they were my boss) about the faith, and it just screams made up for the enrichment of one con man in a way that surpasses that of much older religions.

  13. says

    Early Christianity was much more egalitarian, and there were women bishops and other leaders. It became misogynistic and power hungry at the Council of Nicia in 325, called by emperor Constantine. Now that I think about it, it seems a move similar to Americas’s right wing politicians courting fundamentalist Chritians. An alliance between the emperor and bishops in order to extend their power.

    I can’t remember where I read it, but I believe that among other monkies, in places where the living is easy and Mom can take care of kids on her own, it’s usually free love. In places where it takes both parents to raise the kid, monogamy is more common. So dessert religions tend to be strict about inheritance and sex, and Polynesian islands are traditionally much freer.

  14. K says

    There were African societies (and some Asian and Native American if I recall correctly) where women who needed support got it from the child’s *uncle*, and inheritance was through the female line. Limiting your focus to mainly Europe is a bit much, especially considering how Europe was entangled with its religion, so asking ‘how would you solve this problem given these social norms’, when one of the factors we want to untangle is ‘did the religion of Europe influence its social norms’,,, does not make a great deal of sense.
    Societies change a lot depending on marital residency rules. You see more female freedom and women warriors in societies where men rather than women are the ones to leave the home, since if women leave home there is a risk they’ll eavesdrop on the war room and go tell daddy and brothers – better to ban ’em from war. Societies that face more external pressure than internal which require high cohesion tend to keep their men near, since even in more female warrior friendly societies men still make up the bulk of the warriors, so the men leave but they don’t go all the way to a competitor society, they marry next door essentially.
    If you go wayyy back to Stone Age North America interestingly it looks like they had a lot of female hunters. With space so much more open, that makes sense: you aren’t really fighting with your neighbor village next door over abundant resources, but that roving nomadic band who pretend to be traders and then rob people is still going to be a problem.
    Even though China is greater in population, it was slightly better at unifying due to geography (big rivers make movement easier) though chance also played a role (Roman Empire also unified a lot until it collapsed after all, and if not for one dude Christ wouldn’t be nearly so famous), so one can notice an interesting theme that the most sex-hating societies seem to be the ones that that faced the highest internal pressure and were not as good at dealing with their growing population. The era of chivalry was full of knights chopping off the heads of another noble’s peasants, and the ability of one religion to slowly consume all the others brutally was very much caused by a lack of unity that emphasized, as pro-unity empires usually are, a certain degree of freedom of religion. When unity collapses, you see rising fundamentalism and more civil war.
    Christ is thus a civil war god, dressed up in messages of peace.

  15. says

    @Pierce R. Butler:

    To advocate a little deviltry: imagine you live in a society without any contraception, where individualism takes a very low position relative to the extended family, and families accumulate wealth and standing primarily through inheritance, yet adolescent sexuality blooms as strongly as ever even in the absence of any knowledge of hormones.

    So just how would you form and enforce regulation of behavior that threatens to undermine socioeconomic stability in each and every generation?

    Seems to me the obvious solution would be to make inheritance matrilineal. There’s no ambiguity about who someone’s mother is!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *